The play-off lottery!

10 05 2011

Saturday saw the final round of matches in football’s Npower Championship and rugby union’s Aviva Premiership.  

The regular season may be over but both my teams, Nottingham Forest and Gloucester Rugby, now have to crank themselves up for the end of season play-off lottery.

I should say from the outset that I have never been a fan of the play-off concept. League competitions should be a measure of how well a team has played over an entire season, in Forest’s case 46 matches and in Gloucester’s, 22 – end of story.

There is no sporting justification for a bolt-on end of season knock-out competition. At the end of an Olympic marathon, imagine asking the third to sixth placed runners to take part in a sprint race to decide the bronze medal! 

Forest ended up in 6th place with 75 points, five behind Swansea who finished 3rd and who they will now face in a two leg play-off semi-final. In my book Swansea have earned a third automatic promotion spot, in the same way that I believe Forest did last season.

Last year Blackpool, finishing the season on a roll, sneaked into final play-off position on the last day of the season, nine points behind 3rd placed Forest who they beat in the semi-final and six points behind Cardiff who they defeated in the Wembley final to seal a most unlikely promotion to the Premiership.

A tangerine dream, indeed, for the irrepressible Ian Holloway’s Seasiders who, admittedly, have subsequently proved to be a welcome breath of fresh air in this year’s Premiership, although, as I write, they have slipped into the relegation zone and with two matches to go are staring into the abyss.

But my argument is that they should never have been there in the first place. They took my team’s place and you won’t convince me otherwise!    

The play-off system is inherently unfair and invariably favours those teams that finish the season with a late run of good results and an injury free team-sheet. It may provide an exciting spectacle for the neutral and ensure that the regular season remains ‘alive’ for more teams right down to the final wire, but it primarily exists to generate more income.  

The system which operates in the Rugby Premiership is even more bizarre, while the second division Championship set up is pure farce (but I won’t get bogged down with that now!)

The four top placed Premiership rugby teams are all involved in the play-offs with nothing awarded to the team that finishes top of the table after completing its fixtures!  

Gloucester have suffered, in this regard, more than most. At the end of the 2002-03 season, having led all the way, they finished a massive 15 points clear of the rest but were blown away in the Twickenham final (following a three week lay off!) by their nearest rivals, a rampant Wasps side who were on a roll, having finished the season strongly to secure 2nd spot.

In 2006-07 and 2007-08 Gloucester again finished the regular season in pole position but on both occasions lost out to Leicester Tigers; another Twickenham final demise, 44-16, and a home semi-final defeat 25-26 (to a scuffed drop goal from Andy ‘who ate all the pies?’ Goode, if I remember rightly) Bitter pills to swallow!

So both my teams go into this season’s play-offs carrying a bit of baggage, and surely one or other (even both) deserve a change of fortune.

The difference this time is that they are both outsiders, with everything to gain and nothing to lose. It will be Swansea, Saracens and Leicester under pressure and their fans who will feel justifiably aggrieved if they are usurped by a team who finished the regular season some way behind them.  

Forest finished the regular season with a 3-0 stroll in Selhurst Park. I was there, sitting on my hands with the Crystal Palace fans! Four matches unbeaten, and 14 goals scored, would suggest they go into Thursday’s home leg v Swansea as favourites.  

But, as I have posted elsewhere, Swansea are the best Championship team I have seen this season and I think the Tricky Trees will need to take at least a two goal cushion into the second leg at the Liberty Stadium (next Monday), if they are to progress to a Wembley final date with either Cardiff or Reading.

Gloucester who finished off their league games in 3rd place (11 points behind behind Leicester and 9 behind Saracens) with a ten try demolition of Sale, 68-17, have exceeded all realistic expectations this season. They already have the LV Cup and a place in next season’s Heineken Cup to show for their efforts, as well as maintaining an unbeaten home record at fortress Kingsholm.

On Sunday they travel to Vicarage Rd for a semi-final showdown against a Saracens team, unbeaten in nine league games, that finished in second spot nine points ahead of them. Glaws are clearly underdogs but have absolutely nothing to lose, which might just work in their favour.    

Whatever the outcome for Forest and Glaws, I won’t be changing my views on the play-off system, but if either team or, perchance to dream, both should prosper I will be cheering from the roof-tops!

Come on you Reds! Glaws!

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